The Valdosta Daily Times
The recently announced closing of Southwestern State Hospital in Thomasville has left many in the region wondering what will happen to the patients and the staff at the end of the year.
Mental-health facilities fall under the auspices of the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, and the state Commissioner Frank Berry visited Valdosta Monday to address the issue.
Berry announced that a new Behavioral Health Crisis Center will be built in Lowndes County. The site and construction timetable have not been determined yet for the planned 24-bed facility, which will also include six temporary observation beds.
“Over the next three to five years, the state plans to invest almost $20 million in this region,” said Berry. “There will be 300 jobs, with 60 here at this facility.”
When asked after the presentation about the 660 full-time employees working at Southwestern, Berry acknowledged that “not everyone will get employment.” He said the current employees would receive preferential interviewing at the new facilities but not preferential hiring.
Berry announced that the current crisis center in Albany will be expanded and that Thomas County will also have a new crisis center, similar in size to the one in Valdosta, bringing the total to three crisis centers to serve the 24 counties in DBHDD Region Four.
“When the United States Department of Justice made their ruling three years ago about our mental-health facilities in Georgia, it gave us an opportunity to improve and we now deliver phenomenal care.”
Berry continued, “The DOJ isn’t forcing us to close hospitals, but the ruling is forcing us to ensure that the developmentally disabled be housed in communities, not hospitals.”
The first patients that will be discharged from the state’s hospitals will be the developmentally disabled. When asked about housing for them, Berry said the state is working with HUD and local community agencies to ensure that appropriate homes are found.
“The cost of remodeling a bathroom for the developmentally disabled is $20,000, and the total cost of retrofitting a home is around $80,000, over and above the purchase price, so this is a good thing in communities.”
The purpose of the large-scale changes in the way mental-health patients are assisted in the state is to bring them closer to home for their care.
“When they are closer to their homes and families, it helps with their aftercare and it keeps them in treatment,” Berry said.
The crisis center will be manned 24/7 and will accept patients as needed. When an individual in the community behaves in a manner that would merit further assistance, if there is no medical emergency, the individual would go straight to the crisis center and not the emergency room at the hospital. South Georgia Medical Center currently treats about 135 patients with mental illness each month, of which approximately 20 were transferred to Southwestern, and nearly half of the rest sent to other facilities around the state.
According to the Thomasville Times-Enterprise, Southwestern serves an average of 277 patients each month.
Berry said there are no plans for any other crisis centers in the region, bringing the number of slots available for patients to less than 75 in the region, or for less than a third of the patients currently seen monthly at Southwestern.
Southwestern costs the state approximately $35 million annually to operate, according to Berry, while the Lowndes Center will cost $5.2 million per year to operate.
The facility will come under the supervision locally of Behavioral Health Services of South Georgia. CEO David Sofferin said Monday that less than 40 percent of those who need help with mental-health and substance-abuse issues actually receive it.
“Behavioral health issues are largely ignored. Can you imagine if you said less than 40 percent of people with cancer were treated? There’d be an outcry.”